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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Co-op system no more inclusive than Greeks

Visit any of Madison's housing cooperative's websites and you'll be greeted with a sunny description of the advantages of community living. Want to join? Simply contact the membership coordinator! Sounds easy, right?

Wrong. While the Greek system has received plenty of criticism for exclusivity in their membership processes, co-ops maintain a sparkling reputation as havens of acceptance, free of judgment or rejection. However, co-ops engage in the same exclusive practices as any sorority or fraternity—they just seek to fill a different kind of mold.

As a freshman, I ""membershipped"" at several co-ops in the Langdon Street area, intrigued by their eco-friendly living practices and community atmosphere. For each co-op, I attended the mandatory dinners and then underwent an interview process. I answered their questions earnestly and came off as a normal, stable person. However, much to my confusion, I wasn't accepted into a single co-op.

I was shocked. I never imagined that a community that boasts a philosophy of acceptance would have refused the inclusion of such a benign young woman. And then it hit me: I simply didn't fit the stereotypical co-op mold. As a shy freshman in a Wisconsin sweatshirt and jeans, I didn't come off as quirky enough to participate in the alternative, co-op lifestyle. One apologetic member informed me afterward that I should've ""sold myself"" more during the interview. If that doesn't sound like a popularity contest, I don't know what does.

My experience with the ""co-op mold"" is not an isolated one. One former co-op member said that she consciously donned ""typical hippie"" clothing in anticipation of her membership meeting so that she more convincingly ""looked the part."" Another individual purposefully failed to mention his status as a fraternity member for fear that it would cost him a spot in the co-op. Evidently these two individuals were aware that co-ops seek a specific type of member, and they adjusted their personal images accordingly to fit that image. The fact that potential members feel the need to tweak their own style or personality in order to appeal to the current membership demonstrates how co-ops have morphed from environments of acceptance into exclusive, elitist clubs.

Clearly, not all co-op members are judgmental and petty. I met some very friendly people who truly embraced an accepting community mindset. However, these welcoming, open-minded individuals were overshadowed by their more exclusive peers, primarily due to the membership approval process. Many co-ops operate under a system of unanimous decisions, wherein membership can be denied by the vote of just one contrary person. In this bastardized version of a jury system, the final decision is not truly unanimous, but rather favors the minority, a bewildering and nonsensical concept. As a first step in moving toward a more accepting community, co-ops must abandon this process that places the power of decision into the hands of a few small-minded, power-hungry individuals.

The concept of ""membershipping"" that dominates Madison's co-ops today was not always the norm. Former members who lived in co-ops during the 1970s describe a ""first come, first served,"" system, wherein truly anyone could join. Clearly, this method yielded its share of problematic members, but the newfound ""membershipping"" process has not eliminated this issue. Co-ops still struggle with troublesome members and are forced to make evictions. While not perfect, the old method at least holds truer to the values of acceptance that the co-op philosophy embraces; the newer process has caused the co-ops to sacrifice these values for the sake of avoiding irresponsible tenants. To return to their more inclusive roots, Madison's co-ops must strive for a middle ground between the potentially chaotic former process and the exclusive, illogical current method.

The membership process isn't exactly improper because co-ops are not public entities; they are free to refuse membership to whomever they please, as long as their reason is not discriminatory. However, perhaps they should abandon the altogether phony notion that they are an inclusive community. Both the Greek system and the co-op system engage in exclusive membership practices—the key difference is that the Greek system rarely tries to deny this fact. The co-op system affects an air of moral superiority over fraternities and sororities that is undeserved and false.

The sincere apologies I received from multiple co-op members suggest that many members are aware of the system's flaws and contradictions. I suggest that these members become more active in creating a more welcoming community in the co-ops, one that is truly free from judgment and exclusivity. Only by confronting their issues with inclusiveness can Madison's co-ops hope to come close to the friendly, accepting community that they claim to be.

Alyssa Lochen is a senior majoring in zoology and Spanish. We welcome all feedback. Please send responses to opinion@dailycardinal.com. 

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